We’ve all been there: about to hit “submit” on that social media post that we believe strongly in, but we know it’ll be controversial and may get us in trouble at work … should that stop you from posting online? Can your employer fire you for something you say in person or online? What about your First Amendment rights to free speech?
If it’s a private company its probably not a First Amendment issue
Private companies can generally discipline employee speech online or elsewhere. They can go as far as to monitor speech created using employer assets such as a company computer or cell phone. There are certain limitations: an employer cannot violate state and federal civil rights laws and regulations, for instance Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of categories such as religion, sex and national origin.
If you’re a government employee, it’s complicated
As a government employee you have two relationships: an employer-employee relationship and a citizen-government relationship. As a public institution, the government cannot restrict your speech without good reason. This also applies to government employees because they are members of the public as well. In this way, in some cases government employees have more free speech protections than those working for private employers.
The government usually ends up restricting employee speech when the speech would make it difficult for the employee to do their job (such as a government prosecutor who leaks information about a case to the press or on her blog) or would violate a law (such as sharing classified information).
For instance, courts have ruled in favor of police departments who fired cops for sharing racist remarks on their personal Facebook page because, “for police officers, in their community, being a known racist impacts their ability to do the job.” But this trend is changing in favor of an expansive definition of government employee free speech. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a police officer who sued his department when he was demoted after he was spotted in public holding a yard sign for a candidate running against the current administration.
What should you do?
Free speech seems simple, but it rarely is … especially given how easy it is to create and share thoughts in a semi-permanent way online. When considering publishing or writing something, especially if it is controversial, you have several options: consult your organization’s ethics officer, chat with a civil rights attorney or labor and employment attorney (many who work for non-profits offer free advice), or speak with an HR professional.
The one thing you shouldn’t do unless necessary … is censor yourself. Free speech is a cherished American right. Say what you want, as long as you say it responsibly.